“Show Boat”


What a Friday evening delight and surprise. PBS broadcast a live performance of the old Broadway musical “Show Boat.”

I couldn’t tell from the listings in the paper what the special was going to be. Anyway, I set my biography of FDR in 1944 aside and flipped on the PBS channel, TV-39 on my set.

Of course, it wasn’t Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson who starred in the 1951 movie version. That was back in the days I dreamed of being a song-and-dance man in the movies.

I couldn’t tell you the names of the performers my wife Toni and I saw in the show on Broadway in the 1990s.

The story was lifted in 1927 from an Edna Ferber novel. From that Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein created the classic musical hit that took on the endurance of a marathon runner.

Whatever decade you enjoy it, you’ll find the Cotton Blossom river boat paddling down the Mississippi. The boat carries a troupe of singers and dancers who entertain as the boat stops from town to town.

Personal stories weave throughout the show. There’s a love story that features a fast-talking riverboat gambler named Gaylord falling hard for Magnolia, beautiful daughter of the riverboat captain.

Racial prejudice flares up as townsfolk report seeing a white man dancing with a black woman.

A local sheriff appears on the scene to arrest them but is talked out of it when friends swear the man has Negro blood.

Yes, a durable plot. But I’m sure what’s made “Show Boat” such a popular and frequently revived musical are the familiar show tunes.

A day later after the TV broadcast and I’m still humming the tunes -“Old Man River,” “Only Make Believe,” “Can’t help Lovin’ Dat Man.” How such music can enrich a person’s life.

No doubt, such tunes will remain in the American canon for many more years to come. I venture to predict that last night’s PBS performance of “Show Boat” won’t be the end of this most memorable of musicals.

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